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From time to time we feature "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada). Barry describes his resource this way: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way". Contact Barry at firstname.lastname@example.org to request samples and get further subscription information. Snail mail inquiries can be sent to Barry at the address at the bottom of this page.
KEEPING THE FAITH IN BABYLON
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson
The First Sunday In Lent - Year A
Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-20, Psalm 32, Romans 5.12-19, Matthew 4.1-11
'The Shady Side of Wisdom'
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, "You may freely eat of every tree in the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die." There was once a famous movie actress who was talented, personable and beautiful. In her very first film she won an Academy Award for best actress. "The new Audrey Hepburn!" people gushed. "Her star is going to be around for a long time!" And, true enough, the actress kept being nominated and kept winning awards film after film. Moreover, both her talent and her beauty proved durable. Her popularity with viewers and winning streak at awards ceremonies never came to an end. People thought she would be able to play leading ladies and continue to make millions of dollars both for herself and her producers well into her sixties. And then, on her fortieth birthday, the woman announced that she was retiring permanently. She would do no more movies, give no more interviews, sign no more lucrative contracts, provide no more studios with giant profits. She wanted to enjoy life with her husband and children, settle down in one place far from Hollywood and crowds and the limelight. She wanted to garden, read books, watch her children grow up and do volunteer work down at the local women's shelter. People thought she was crazy. She was still a young woman. She hadn't even reached the prime of her money-producing years. She had any number of record-breaking, box-office blockbuster performances ahead of her. She hadn't even begun to tap the potential of her mass popularity. Why, she could be a director, a producer, write her own scripts, own her own film studio! But, when the actress absolutely refused all offers to come out of retirement, the public concluded that it must have been her family who made her do it. "Nope," said the actress, "but they were pleased about it." People just couldn't stop speculating. Maybe she was afraid to grow old. Maybe she had a fear of failure. Maybe she had an incurable disease that she was too embarrassed to talk about. A dark secret she didn't want anyone to know about. After all, didn't she have more than half her life still ahead of her!? "Yep," said the down-to-earth actress. "That's why I'm quitting now." And, that's just what she did. And, it wasn't long before most people quickly forgot all about her. Almost as if she had never lived. And, that was just fine with her. + Sometimes, the best way to come at the Bible is sideways, especially with a story like this week's from the book of Genesis. The story of Adam and Eve and the garden of Eden and the forbidden thing that happened there. It is a story most of us grew up with; and therein lies the problem. We think we know what this story is about. We have talked about, taught, preached and analysed it just about to death; and even then we miss the point. There is any number of legends about the story, of course. One of them says that after being driven out of Eden, Adam and Eve sat in shock for eight-three days. Just sat there obsessing over what had happened in a cave God had given them for shelter. Eve even offered to kill herself if God would let Adam back in. Adam wouldn't hear of that and tried to kill himself by jumping off a cliff. They couldn't even manage their suffering all that well. Finally, they just ended up pleading with God to let them back in. But, with deep sadness, God said, "No!" There were some things even God couldn't do and that was one of them. If he let them back in, it would mean that their having crossed the line didn't matter. It hurt God to tell them that; but it was the way it was. The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. That was all God had asked them to do - just to care for things and keep them. It was such a beautiful place, filled with everything that they would ever need; and all God wanted was to entrust things to them, to give them into their care. It was the only call God had in mind for anyone in the beginning - just to enjoy the work of protecting the earth and everything in it. You may freely eat of every tree of the garden... And as long as they did that, everything was permitted. The things of the garden were theirs to use as they needed and as gave them pleasure. No dietary restrictions, no prohibitions against strong drink, no conditions on how many times a day they could have sex - just the freedom to enjoy and use all created things for their own enjoyment. ...but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die. There was only one thing God asked them not to do. Why, we have no idea. Nothing is explained about the tree that was out of bounds to them. Just that it was. There was a limit to what they could do. A limit to what they needed to do. All God wanted is that they would respect that. Respect the fact that the gracious freedom God had given them to enjoy life had a boundary beyond which it was in their own interest not to go. Beyond which, if they did, God could do little to protect them. "Don't go there", God said. "It is all I ask". If I am making God sound a good deal gentler than typical renderings of this old, old story, that is exactly my intention. The God announced in this unpretentious story is neither a petty God who sets rules just for the sake of setting them nor a jealous God who wants to keep certain things to himself. It is the story of an anguished God who knows something about life that cannot be altered and whose truth cannot be ignored without consequence. There are secrets about the human heart and the human community which must be honoured, bowed before, and not exposed. That is because the gift of life in the human heart and in the human community is a mystery retained by God for himself. It has not been put at the disposal of human ingenuity and human imagination. - Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation All God asked was that they trust him. Trust that their reason for being in that garden was to care for and protect all things. Not to go beyond that. Not to think that they were free to go beyond the way things are. But that first mother and father of ours couldn't seem to manage that. Just had to test the limits, push the envelope, assert their independence - for the principle of the thing. And we have all been living in anguished regret ever since, homesick for a place we can barely name anymore, lonely for a time too good not to be true before it became something too good to be true. + Some scripture scholars suggest that one of the reasons this story was written was as a reflection on royal power and wisdom, the kind which rose to ascendancy during the reign of David and Solomon, the kind that eventually proved disastrous for Israel and for which the experience of exile was regarded as a consequence. When David tried to take his own destiny in his hands and rearrange it, for instance, he ended up destroying his world and everyone else's around him. Eventually, even Solomon, the first of the big-time spenders and the coolest cat ever to run an administration, became too big for his britches as well. Hardly before he was cold in his grave, Israel broke up as a country and has been an almost unbroken streak of disasters ever since. There are boundaries before which we must bow, even if we could know more, do more. It was the kind of thing about which Albert Einstein tried to warn us when he said many years ago: "The release of the power of the atom has changed everything, except our way of thinking. Thus, we drift towards a catastrophe of unparalleled magnitude." But my guess is that what changed everything was not Hiroshima, nor Auschwitz, nor Vietnam, nor September 11, 2001, nor any of the catastrophes wrought by human technology or hatred, but whenever we began to assume that there is no limit to our power and importance. Our great grandparents learned too late that living beyond such a limit meant living a life of constant anxiety. We have been proving them right ever since. And the story of anguished regret of that One over his children who just had to learn for themselves? Well, of course, it is the story of that One who has never left us any more than he left those first two exiles from Eden. He continued to watch over them and to help them the best way he could, showing them how to cover themselves for the night that was surely falling everywhere and as they learned too late the shady side of wisdom east of Eden. He is the One who is with their children's children still. GENESIS 2.15-17; 3.1-20 Instead of thinking of it as the most important story in the Bible, it might well be worth our while to think of this week's text as one of the most shrewdly stated stories in the Bible. It is a story that reminds us of three things: 1. The vocation of human beings; 2. The freedom given to human beings; and 3. The prohibition given to human beings. The crux of the story lay in the human reluctance to acknowledge the prohibition beyond which, the author believed, there were few alternatives. How is this week's reflection different from your usual interpretation of this story? What do you think "eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" was meant to symbolize? Why? What has this week's opening story to do with the reflection? In what ways have you learned painfully the consequences of going "beyond the boundary"? ROMANS 5.12-19 Although it may not be possible to agree with Paul's logic, it is important to understand it. Paul sees Adam as a representative human figure, whose actions radically affected all of humanity. Christ, too, is a representative figure, whose triumph on the cross restored everything that humanity lost. Paul believed that the restoration Christ brought was announced in the resurrection but would not be fulfilled until God's new day began. In the meantime, though there is abundant evil, it will surely be overcome by the abundance of grace unleashed into the world in Christ. 1. What do you find difficult to swallow about Paul's argument? Why? 2. What is meant by "original sin"? Why is this text helpful in promoting it? What do you find difficult about such a doctrine? 3. In what real sense have the actions of one person affected everything about your life for good or for evil? MATTHEW 4. 1-11 Matthew's account of Jesus' temptation is an attempt to say that the church encountered God in one who did not try to be God or as God (Genesis 3.5) and who did not try to use God to claim something for himself. 1. When, in your experience, has the church become too fond of power, place and claims that Jesus would never have made for himself? 2. What have been the consequences? 3. What does it mean for you to walk in Jesus' footsteps the way Jesus resisted temptation? FOR FURTHER REFLECTION - "The great, paradoxical tragedy of our sin is that we are at our worst when we think we are saying yes to our best. Fearing that we might say no to that which would give our lives substance and meaning, we say yes to everything. Our voracious, limitless, self-affirmation is but pitiful testimonial to our superficiality. We have no means to resist. M adonna is us all over." - William Willimon HYMN 278 In the Quiet Curve of Evening (Voices United)
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